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Threlfall, Sir Richard (1861–1932)

by R. W. Home

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sir Richard Threlfall (1861-1932), physicist and chemical engineer, was born on 14 August 1861 at Hollowforth, near Preston, Lancashire, England, eldest son of Richard Threlfall, a small landholder, wine merchant and sometime mayor of Preston, and his second wife Sarah Jane, née Mason. Richard was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, where he shared a study with (Field Marshal Lord) Haig, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (B.A., 1884; M.A., 1888). He also read mathematics privately with W. J. Ibbetson and, midway through his course, studied at the University of Strasbourg under August Kundt and Rudolph Fittig. On graduating with first-class honours in the natural sciences tripos, he lectured at his college and worked as a demonstrator in the Cavendish Laboratory under his friend J. J. Thomson.

In 1886 Threlfall was appointed to the chair of physics at the University of Sydney. He was exactly the right person to bring its somewhat moribund teaching into line with the best modern practice, for his training had instilled in him the latest vision of the subject: a body of knowledge expressed in the language of mathematics, but grounded upon laboratory practice characterized by ever-increasing precision of measurement. Despite having lost several fingers while experimenting with explosives, Threlfall was an outstanding manipulator of apparatus whom Thomson regarded as 'one of the best experimenters I ever met'.

Fired with a passion for research and a determination to create in Sydney a major centre of physical inquiry, immediately upon his arrival Threlfall launched an extensive series of projects using equipment he had bought, without authorization, in Europe. By sheer force of personality, he soon prevailed upon the university and the colonial government to provide him with a splendid new building (completed in 1888) in which to house it. Threlfall's research developed along three separate lines. One, on explosives and the propagation of explosions, led to his being used as a consultant by the local military authorities. Another involved the electrical properties of dielectric materials such as sulphur and selenium. Finally, Threlfall and his student and friend J. A. Pollock developed a quartz thread torsion balance for use as a gravity meter, and then used this to make measurements in a wide range of eastern Australian localities.

Threlfall's success in developing a programme of research inspired his fellow physics professors (Sir) Thomas Lyle in Melbourne and (Sir) William Bragg in Adelaide to do likewise. The emergence of new technologies, especially electrical power technology, was giving physics an increasingly utilitarian aspect. Threlfall established a lucrative business in the early 1890s as a consultant to municipal authorities and private companies. He also sought to establish a course in electrical engineering at the university, but was frustrated in this aim, as well as in his larger ambitions for his department, by the bank crash of 1893 and its aftermath.

A born leader, Threlfall was short, with a powerful physique and vigorous personality, and could sway a crowd with his oratory. He was a formidable Rugby blue who claimed that 'only an aversion from treading on a man's face had prevented him from playing for England'; in Sydney he turned out with the university team. He loved shooting, fishing and the outdoors, belonged to the Union Club and was 'one of the most sociable and “clubbable” of men', a quality that stood him in good stead when it came to extracting from the New South Wales government the money he needed for his new laboratory. Threlfall advised the government on sewage disposal and chaired two royal commissions (1896-98) inquiring into the causes of spontaneous combustion of coal cargoes in ships. His mastery of technique is amply displayed in his book, On Laboratory Arts (London, 1898), illustrated by his wife. On 18 January 1890 Threlfall had married English-born Evelyn Agnes Baird (d.1929) at St John's Anglican Church, Hobart. They had met while she was visiting her sister Lillian, wife of Bernhard Wise. Evelyn published two books of poetry and was also a talented artist.

Secretary of section A at the inaugural (1888) meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Threlfall presided over the section in 1890. He was president of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1894-95) and one of the few consistent supporters of Lawrence Hargrave in his efforts to design a heavier-than-air flying machine. Threlfall's 'wild prophecy' that Hertz's newly discovered electromagnetic radiation might be useful in communication affected the wording of section 51 (v) in the Australian Constitution.

Through scientific correspondents in Europe and North America, of whom Thomson was by far the most important to him, Threlfall kept abreast of developments in his field. Leaving Australia in 1898, he found a congenial position as director of research with Albright & Wilson, chemical manufacturers, at Oldbury, England. Shortly afterwards he joined their board and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1899.

He was responsible for major improvements in his company's production methods. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Threlfall was completely occupied in important war-related work, especially on the use of phosphorus in smoke-screens and in tracer ammunition. He served on the Admiralty's Board of Invention and Research (working closely with Admiral Lord Fisher), the Advisory Council on Scientific and Industrial Research and numerous other wartime science-related committees. He was also part-time director of the Chemical Research Laboratory, Teddington. Appointed K.B.E. in 1917 (G.B.E., 1927), he was awarded the Society of Chemical Industry's gold medal in 1929.

Following World War I, Threlfall remained active in public life while maintaining his position at Albright & Wilson. In poor health after a stroke in 1929, he died at his home at Edgbaston, Birmingham, on 10 July 1932. Four sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40
  • R. E. Threlfall, 100 Years of Phosphorus Making, 1851-1951 (Birmingham, Eng, 1951)
  • Nature (London), 130 (1932), p 228
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1 (1932), p 45
  • Journal of the Chemical Society (London), 1937, p 186
  • Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 16 (1961), p 234
  • Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 1, no 3, 1968, p 36
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 6, no 3, 1986, p 333
  • Rayleigh papers (Rayleigh Archive, Hanscomb Air Force Base, Massachusetts, United States of America)
  • Threlfall papers and correspondence, 1870-1932 (City of Birmingham Reference Library, England) and 1887-98 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • H. Hartley, Sir Richard Threlfall, G.B.E., F.R.S. (typescript, Threlfall papers, University of Sydney Archives)
  • J. J. Thomson papers (Cambridge University Library, England).

Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Threlfall, Sir Richard (1861–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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